Guns Over Africa
Guns Over Africa is an affirmation of sport hunting, and in this context, hunting that contributes to the economy of developing countries within the rules of international wildlife conservation and preservation. This does not mean that the hunter cannot enjoy the sport; it’s not all high-minded and only for these obvious commercial and conservation benefits for other than the hunter himself (or herself). For the hunter, trophy mounts and memories resulting from such experiences flash back the challenge, the competition, the failures, the successes, the remorse, and the elation of the hunt. And they make last year, or before, when the animals were taken, seem not so long ago, and make the next hunt seem not so far away. Settings for these safari accounts are Zimbabwe and South Africa.
A HUNTER’S TALE—ALPHA and OMEGA
I’ve had a good hunt, but I don’t hike the game trails any more. I’ve hung up my guns, but I hang on to the memories, and the memories are pretty good.
It would be romantic nonsense for me to claim having been a shooter and hunter all my life, although I often have thought of myself as such. The truth is in my early boyhood my shooting was restricted to a scant few .22 rimfire rounds at tin cans under the watchful eye of my father. It was his single-shot rifle, and cartridges were precious. We didn’t fire many on an outing. A box of fifty rounds was a treasure to be enjoyed sparingly over many months by the three of us—me, my older brother and our father.
Dad was left-handed. He instructed, “Here’s how you do it,” as he shouldered the rifle port-side. Although I am right-handed, I imitated him, and to this day I shoot a long gun left-handed.
I was fourteen before I owned my first rifle. I bargained with the gun shop, not realizing then I actually made the first contract of my life. I merely extracted a promise from the shop owner that he would not sell it to someone else if I made regular payments and paid it off in a specified time. I just wanted the rifle awfully much and knew that there was no chance of getting it except to come up with the twelve dollars on my own, but I never held such an enormous sum at one time. It was a proud day when I went into the shop with the last payment and took possession of the rifle.
In retrospect, I have to marvel I could do it at all. My parents were not involved; the handshake was between the dealer and me. It could not have happened in any but a small town, and not anywhere under today’s gun laws.
My father certainly was surprised when I brought the rifle home, and envious too. Mine was equipped with a five-round clip. I was to find his single-shot rifle was the reason a box of cartridges lasted him so long. My five fast repeat shots used up an allotment of cartridges much too quickly. Later on, when I traded the bolt-action in on a tubular-magazine pump rifle, I went broke feeding it.
I was shooting more, but had not become a hunter. I stalked the cunning Prince Albert tobacco can. With its reasonably large rectangular area it could absorb numerous hits before being transformed into artistic tin lacework. In that age of ecological innocence, I enjoyed the destruction of a Coke bottle with a well-placed shot. Once in a while I did shoot a squirrel, but to my shame, in light of my later education, I did not salvage the meat. Dad didn’t hunt, so I received no guidance in the art. Many were the times that we supplemented the family larder with fish from the Ohio River and its feeder creeks in my part of Western Kentucky, but we did not hunt. Why? I don’t know. It would have made sense for us to have hunted in those poor times but Mom didn’t clean the fish we caught; it was Dad’s chore. Perhaps he didn’t know how to skin and care for game. I learned how to myself much later in life.
When I left home at age seventeen, my rifle stayed behind. My father worked for the Illinois Central Railroad repair shops, and one of his benefits was courtesy rail passes for family. My rite of passage to independence was aided by steam-train passage from Kentucky to California. “You can’t take the rifle on the train,” Dad convinced me, so I left it behind. I think he just wanted my repeating rifle.
A cousin in California took me on my first hunts, once for ducks and once for deer, and I counted myself a hunter from that time on, although my hunting opportunities for the next several years were limited. The U. S. Navy disrupted my hunting education for a while, and later as a young-married, the economics of raising a family interfered with any sort of regular hunting. I was into midlife before I was exposed to, and became financially able to take advantage of, opportunities for serious hunting.
The milestone making it possible for me to partake at last in more than the occasional rabbit shoot or local deer hunt was my going to work at Petersen Publishing Company in Los Angeles. As a staff editor of Guns & Ammo and Petersen’s Hunting magazines, I was exposed to hunting opportunities usually reserved, in my mind at least, for those who were financially well off. At times, hunting actually became part of my job. The windfall of being in the right place at the right time resulted in my participation in promotional hunts in Canada, Honduras, Spain and several states that, as far as my ever considering hunting in them, might as well have been foreign countries too. The perquisite carried over to my subsequent position as a field editor with Guns magazine after I moved to Arizona years later.
In 1983, Zeiss Optics Company arranged a safari in Zimbabwe to showcase some new products. The company selected four writers, myself among them, out of the entire United States and many sporting magazines, to be guests on the promotional trip. In 1985, the South African Tourism Board selected seven journalists representing print and broadcast media from the United States and Canada to investigate the recreational opportunities of South Africa. I was one of only three magazine editors to be part of the group, the others being newspapermen or television sports-host figures.
Like an addict, once injected with these complimentary doses of African safari, I put my own dollars into repeated fixes for my treatment. My domestic hunting also did not depend entirely on advertisers’ promotional junkets. I discovered hunting in general, and safaris in particular, are not really bank-breaking habits to support. I have been in safari and hunting camps with workingmen who have saved for their “once-in-a-lifetime” hunts, and who started planning for their “never-in-their-wildest-dreams” return hunts before ever leaving camp. I was one of them.
It was on my fourth or fifth safari I was forced to face up to the prospect of retiring from hunting altogether. One other legacy from my father, in addition to the handicap of shooting left-handed, was a flaw in my respiratory system. He choked constantly on the coal dust associated with his railroad job, and smoked heavily as well. Both conditions contributed to his dying of emphysema. I contracted asthma while I was of first-grade age, and in light of recent studies, I think my affliction was the result of the secondhand cigarette smoke filling our house.
I never smoked myself, but as my age progressed so did the asthma until it reached the irreversible stage and my doctor started referring to the condition as emphysema. Even before though, the advancing asthma and its treatment were taking their toll on my shooting. It’s difficult holding a rifle steady when your breath comes in labored gasps. I could relieve the difficult breathing temporarily with an inhaled medication, but this caused my heart-rate to accelerate—another condition adversely affecting rifle marksmanship.
Personal retirement has occurred in other sports where the participant holds too much respect for the game to allow it to be demeaned by an individual poor performance: a major league baseball pitcher or NFL quarterback recognizes the early warnings of no longer being able to place the ball where he intends it, and refuses, out of pride, to hang on for another season. With hunting, the indicators suggesting or dictating retirement come gradually, perhaps over two or three or more seasons. The early warnings can be put down simply to having a bad day, and in fact, they are only occasionally poor performing days, until they occur successively closer together. My unavoidable decision was to quit the game.
Though I have hunted much of the world and gathered experiences usually available only to a small fraternity, this collection of hunting accounts is limited to my personal memories of Africa. It is intended as an affirmation of sport hunting and its many rewards, even for those who start later and close out their season sooner than they might have liked. Rather than lament the hunting opportunities now lost, I celebrate the ones I have been afforded.